Coal’s Poisonous Legacy
Groundwater Contaminated by Coal Ash Across the U.S
“It would be far better for the environment, for public health, and for taxpayers to make a concerted effort now, before contamination gets worse and travels farther into the environment.”
Coal contains a long list of toxic chemicals, including arsenic, radium, and other
carcinogens, several metals that can impair children’s developing brains, and
multiple chemicals that are toxic to aquatic life. When coal is burned to produce
electricity, these toxic chemicals become concentrated in the waste product – coal ash.
Coal-fired power plants in the U.S. produce around 100 million tons of coal ash every year.
For much of the last century, power companies dumped this waste into unlined landfills and
waste ponds, where the lack of a barrier between the coal ash and groundwater left them
vulnerable to leaks and contamination of underground water supplies. Only in recent years
has the true scope of coal ash’s threat come into public view, spurred by several high-profile
structural failures and spills. Most notably, a 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, led
to the release of over five million cubic yards of coal ash, destroying dozens of homes and
allegedly contributing to the illness or deaths of scores of cleanup workers. Yet the most
enduring legacy of coal ash disposal will undoubtedly be groundwater pollution.